Out of the Osage Diaspora: On Chelsea T. Hicks’s “A Calm and Normal Heart”

June 21, 2022   •   By Ruby Hansen Murray

A Calm and Normal Heart

Chelsea T. Hicks

IN CHELSEA T. HICK’S striking debut collection of stories, A Calm and Normal Heart, characters from the Osage diaspora travel the continent looking for home. In prose that’s sharp and funny by turns, Hicks depicts families fractured by American colonialism, patriarchy, and racism.

The diaspora began when Osage chiefs used their third daughters to form alliances with French traders in the 18th century. The divisions between traditional Osage families and off-reservation Osages remain. Hicks’s stories are remarkable for their vivid portrayal of these nuanced family histories and tribal tensions. She describes white-passing Osages who have assimilated and lived among whites for generations. She interrogates cultural allegiances and responsibilities as her characters make their ways home to the Osage.

In strongly crafted coming-of-age stories, young professionals — a model, a poetry professor, and a teacher at an immersion school in the Osage Nation — work to be seen as Native and to understand choices their ancestors made. These are stories of mixed Osage and Creole characters whose ancestors passed for white, the tangled legacies that Black, white, and Indigenous peoples face as they live at the intersection of the one-drop rule and its inverse, blood quantum, both of which work to ensure white supremacy.

The first story, “Txehope,” drops us into Pawhuska, Oklahoma, with a narrator who is “between a break up and a shack up.” Here is Osage tribal life in delicious detail. The narrator rolls into town to find friends on the lawn at the Osage Tribal Museum gathered to see a movie. Fielding texts from Osage friends who have learned she’s home, the narrator heads to the laundromat, where she is irritated by “an older heavyset woman,” an I^shdaxi in cargo shorts, a townsperson who doesn’t recognize her as Osage. In this small town, all movements are telegraphed and everyone knows everyone else.

The courthouse, where the sham trial for the murderer of the narrator’s great-grandmother was held during the Reign of Terror, looms over the town. The narrator considers the documents she’s seen there, the boarding school close by where her grandmother was sent, resulting in the loss of her language, which leaves her having to learn her language as an adult. But she has learned it well enough to chat with an attractive Osage man. They break into English, but the Osage language — 𐓷𐓘𐓻𐓘𐓻𐓟 𐓣𐓟 — winds between them.

The collection is a celebration of the language, and the intellectual and emotional journey we make with our 𐓨𐓪͘𐓬𐓯𐓟 — our ancestors — to learn it. Characters speaking their language are an affirmation: each word in Osage, each conversation, strengthens Indigenous sovereignty and resilience. In “Txehope,” Hicks drops the brain-twisting process of learning Osage positional markers into the text, integrating it into the plot. She has transliterated the Osage rather than using the orthography developed and promulgated in recent years, making Osages adjust to her conventions, but allowing non-Osage speakers a sense of the sound. She uses orthography for subtitles and includes sentences from the 578s, a compilation of text Osage language-learners will recognize.

“Txehope” is an apt place for the collection to begin before Hicks steps back into the chaos of family in earlier generations. The linked characters in “A Fresh Start” and “Full Tilt” are painfully familiar. In the former story, Florence, who has just married for the third time, drives the “hip bone curves” of her new husband’s Pontiac home. This is 1956 Bartlesville, home to Frank Phillips’s petroleum company, whose corporate headquarters is strategically located just off the reservation whose oil built it.

On their first night home as newlyweds, Florence must prepare dinner for her new (controlling) husband and must meet her new daughter-in-law. Stress increases when she realizes that her six-year-old son is not home as she instructed. She faces her neighbors’ judgment for remarrying so quickly, feels censure for being an Indian divorcée with “mixed-bloods hating her the same as the whites they resembled.” She takes three aspirin, “speeding away from the sense of unreality that was meant to remain on the before side of the marriage,” before setting out to find her son. Florence is irate at his disobedience, noting that, “at her son’s age, she’d had a dead mother, a disappeared father, and an aunt who hit her daily.” Searching for her son, Florence phones the “severe lisp of a woman” who is married to her ex-husband. Her anxiety mounts until she yanks open the door to find “her son, his small pink pig-runt hand” in the hand of a policeman.

In these superbly crafted stories, Hicks uses dry humor and sinuous sentences that wrap around and sting. The strength of the prose hooks us and won’t let go. These are women you root for but do not want to be in a room with — families in the style of Pat Conroy, Tennessee Williams, and Flannery O’Connor. Other stories call to mind the disjointedness in James Welch’s 1974 novel, Winter in the Blood. The collection also recalls Sundown, the 1934 novel by John Joseph Mathews, the preeminent Osage author, in its semi-autobiographical tracing of the distance between traditional and acculturated Osages.

In “Superdrunk,” 19-year-old Laney meets Mark, 30, “one of the ex-cons on her dad’s construction crew,” at a sports bar. As the fraught possibilities swirl, Laney reminds herself that hanging out with Mark “may be the guilty pleasure of September, but not graduating and therefore not getting away from her dad is the World’s #1 Nightmare for the rest of her life.” She imagines herself in New York City wearing an “Editor Pant.” With canny clarity and an urge for self-preservation, she sorts through mainstream advice from Psychology Today. There’s no help from her mother, or the doctor her mother takes her to either. Her father sexualizes their relationship, coming into her room when she’s in bed and gazing at her mouth while they talk. Hicks describes seemingly benign family interactions while she makes breakfast — her father joking around, nudging her, then asking for a hug. When her mother chides, “Do not disrespect your father,” Laney responds with the requested embrace, the best of the choices available to her in that moment.

Problematic fathers appear in “Superdrunk,” in “The Wife,” and in “House of RGB,” where a father’s ghost is one of the ancestors who appear. Given the levels of pain, loss, and grief that Osages have suffered, it’s not surprising that, in “Full Tilt,” Florence’s daughter Lora says that her mother’s rage made her calm and sharp. But Lora also says, “[O]ur mother doesn’t have a regular way of thinking, but she is still a beautiful person, because she never stops trying to change.” Hicks’s characters pursue self-care through the unrelenting jeopardy familiar to any young woman, but they are not victims. Hicks is a master of the internal landscape: “A spider web shook on the sill. Florence gazed hard like she would become silk. She was still covered in a grief that laminated her from happiness.”

Tracing the flow of energy between want and need across polyamorous relationships, Hicks creates characters who are vulnerable and exposed. She maps the dynamics of power and control in relationships, as well as her characters’ attempts to resist abuse and harassment. The collection is a process journal of self-preservation, a practice of stepping away from a colonized sexuality.

The seminal Osage history by John Joseph Mathews, The Osages: Children of the Middle Waters (1961), includes a chapter describing social customs in the marriage of Bloody Hands and the Light. In Hicks’s story “The Good Medicine of the Light,” set before European contact, The Light is a young widow subject to her stepfather, an angry man called Uncle. When Uncle turns down a likely suitor, The Light’s grandmother schemes to help her find a good relationship. The Light wanders in the prairie, meets sacred beings, and finally chooses a bush marriage with a warrior she likes. The collection’s ending line tells us, “And so it was that the Light used her medicine to heal her living wound.”

Hicks has written a beautiful book, especially valuable for offering Osage readers their world in print. Osages will try to identify situations, and they’ll compare details with the histories that were passed down in their own families. Spiders and their webs are a recurring motif, the ancient woman’s symbol, calling us all home. A Calm and Normal Heart is a gift for Osages and readers of all kinds.

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Ruby Hansen Murray is an essayist, poet, and columnist for the Osage News. Her work appears in Under the Sun, The Massachusetts Review, Pleiades, Colorlines, and The Rumpus. She’s a citizen of the Osage Nation with West Indian roots, living in the lower Columbia River estuary.